Quick notes from yesterday’s Bold Italic Shift Digital Media Conference which was held at The Chapel in the Mission district of San Francisco yesterday.
The venue and format were perfect. $85 for a half day session of talks in an intimate nightclub off of Valencia Street. Tickets were sold out and the attendees came from across the digital media spectrum, from publishers to advertisers, which made for great side conversations. The Bold Italic, is a San Francisco “hyperlocal” site funded by Gannett, that has acted as an experimental lab of sorts for it’s parent company and this was one of their bigger events, designed to position them as a digital media innovator.
Matt Galligan from cir.ca was first up.
I’ve seen him speak before (my write-up about cir.ca) but he always has new observations to share about the media business.
Brand loyalty to media companies is gone. A show of hands revealed that most people do not remember where they heard about the news they read that day underlining the point that, in a world where distribution costs next to nothing, attention is what is most costly. The undercurrent in this talk and others that followed was that the social networks of the day are the new gate keepers to what gets read.
Fox News at one end of the political spectrum and MSNBC on the other are no different from Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm in that they pander to their audiences’ selected interests and are responsible, to a certain extent, for the polarization we see in society today. Matt sees a need for an editorial viewpoint to tell the most important stories of the day which may come outside your chosen interests.
It’s a great time to be a media startup (“news is sexy again”) but there’s a danger in either being too driven by either an editorial or distribution-focused strategy. A successful company needs to have a “true North” point of view in order to succeed. In his view, Vice News is successful because it has a very clear point of view so its viewers can put the stories in context. Buzzfeed, in Matt’s view, is a bit lost because it is too optimized for social distribution and no one is sure of it’s point of view.
When asked about what he would do if he was put in charge of The New York Times, Matt said he was surprised to see a recent job posting for a “Print Editor” which, to him, signaled a recognition of the difference in the print medium from others. He went on to say that rather than originating stories for print that the Times should flip the hierarchy around writing for Mobile, followed by Web, and finally for Print at the end of the chain.
Matt’s parting words was that we should all glance at the Wikipedia entry for Yellow Journalism to give perspective to the current rash of deceptive, linkbait headlines and where this trend could ultimately be taking us.
Jessica Saia of The Bold Italic was next with a talk about how to make good viral content with “visual satire.”
She gave us a peak into the brilliance of TBI’s creative genius and shared several of their more successful riffs on popular journalistic genres.
Corner Stourmet pokes fun at gourmet food photography (Jessica’s roommate is a photographer) by using ingredients from her local corner store which resulted in sharable works of art such as the Frito Scoop Amuse Bouche.
Another is their Actual Food Porn piece which was engineered to jump on to the #foodporn hashtag train. Do/Don’t/Oh God Please Don’t pushes the norms of the standard fashion magazine column while the Kid Food Reviews bring the brutal honesty of 4-year olds to the restaurant critic genre (TBI’s review of The French Laundry is their most successful post ever).
Each of The Bold Italic’s satire pieces takes a cliche and twists it into a caricature of itself designed to lead to that, “OMG, have you seen this?” moment driving its readers to share and introduce them to new audiences.
Greg Isenberg of 5by gave a talk about making successful viral videos.
He shared a stat that 1 out 3 millennials do not watch television. Not broadcast, not cable, just YouTube and other online video. With unlimited space, imagination is your only barrier.
A couple of pointers,
- Assume your audience has the attention span of an “espresso-fueled fruit fly” which means your cuts need to be quick. What’s important is velocity, not length.
- You need “lighter fluid” to get things going. Sharing stats on the Double Rainbow video Greg pointed out that even though the video was posted in January 2010, it wasn’t until Jimmy Kimmel put his spotlight on it on in July that it really took off.
Lexi Nisita, Social Media Director at Refinery 29 spoke about the dangers of “lab-created” viral
Truly viral content shares certain elements which signal authenticity. It’s usually “low budget, grass roots, and gritty.”
Lexi pointed to Random Acts of Pasta as an example of a viral video which positioned Olive Garden so well that many thought it was a clever way for the company to get media coverage during the Thanksgiving holiday (according to the company, it was not).
Before Refinery 29 decides to work with a brand on a social media campaign, they use a rubric to gauge its effectiveness.
Identity – does it make the person sharing the content look good or feel smart. Does it enhance their identity?
Life Improving – does it act as a gift? If shared, will it impart knowledge? The example here being a blow dryer company sharing top tips in a blog post as something one person can forward to another.
Heart-Pounding Emotion – does it provoke either “righteous anger,” tears of laughter, or nostalgia. All are powerful drivers of sharing behavior.
Bobbie Johnson, Senior Editor at Medium held an Ask Me Anything session where he took questions from the audience.
Medium is both a platform and a publisher. Not a surprise is Medium is the combination of both Blogger (tools) and Twitter (distribution). Both companies that Medium’s founder, Ev Williams, founded.
While Buzzfeed and others like it are enjoying incredible valuations, they are built on the promise of continued success from their native advertising programs. In Bobbie’s words, “the leaves will be pulled away” from this business as there is only so much sponsored content that you can put into the mix before it collapses from its own weight.
News on mobile devices is still primarily, “lumps of text” and needs to evolve to take advantage of the platform. It is still very early days and a challenge that Medium is very interested in solving.
Medium wants to be a platform where brands engage alongside content producers as equals. They want to be youtube.com for writing. A place you go to view collections of content from all ends of the publisher-advertiser spectrum. To this point, when asked if Medium would share revenues with content creators on the site, Bobbie replied that if they did not, “they’d be doing it wrong.”
When asked (by yours truly) if Medium would allow for domain-mapping that would allow brands and publishers to run Medium sites within their own domain, he said that it was a top priority for the company but that they wanted to take their time to do it in a way that would not take away from the network and community effects that they currently enjoy on Medium. I look forward to learning more.
The next session was a panel discussion on native advertising.
- Ryan Grabenkort who manages Quartz’s sponsored content business on the West Coast and APAC.
- Amit Dodeja from Simplereach which advertises itself as “the standard in content measurement and distribution.”
- Erin Scottberg from MediaCo, Weber Shandwick’s group that works with brands to create and distribute original media.
- Matt Kaye from Sharethrough, and in-feed ad-exchange.
It was unfortunate that only the business side of publishing was represented, none of the panelists (except the moderator, Jennifer Maerz, editor at The Bold Italic) serve in an editorial role.
Everyone was surprised to hear results from a Quartz survey shared by Ryan that found 80% of C-level executives are interested and read branded content. CEOs want to hear what their competition, customers and partners have to say (and how they say it), not only what the media has to say about them. This was a unique insight that made me think deeper about the value of sponsored content.
When asked who creates branded content the answers were across the board. Some publications, such as The Bold Italic, have editorial do double-duty and write pieces that get the “sponsored” label (Bobbie Johnson mentioned he used to do this at the Guardian. They were called Advertising Supplements). Other publications have a group that reports into advertising that works with brands to create content. On the other side, some of the larger brands create their own content and work with publishers to distribute it. Finally, MediaCo sits in between. Their parent is a PR firm but their team has a journalistic background and works with brands to create and distribute content that will be compelling and effective.
I was surprised how much sponsored content runs on Quartz. It’s an important part of their business and allows for them to cut back on the number of banner ads they have to run to support their business. During the session, Ryan mentioned that Quartz has a rule to show no more than one sponsored post on the waterfall for every three “news” posts which seems a lot.
Matt Kaye brought up the insight that as more viewership moves to mobile, the more important it is to have sponsored posts that are relevant and interesting to read.
After the break there was a short dialog between Sherine Kazim and JP Stallard about personalization.
The two were debating cookies and other tracking mechanisms as it relates to advertising which they view as creepy, (“I strongly dislike being a product.” said JP) Unfortunately the debate was stuck talking about advertising and did not bring in the benefits of personalization as it relates to publishing. Some of the most interesting work in media is around implicit personalization based on reading behavior and how it can enhance your reading experience.
The next session brought together several user research experts to talk about Reader Behavior: Motivations, Trends & Insights
Larkin Brown User Research at Pinterest
Stephanie Carter Experience Research at Facebook
Bethany Pickard User Experience at Google
Ximena Vengoechea Full Cycle Research at LinkedIn
The final panel of the day started off unexpectedly with the moderator reading from a passage and spending a long time introducing each panelist and asking several favorite/least favorite questions that brought out some strange answers but did a lot to warm up the room and get bring out the personalities of the panelists.
Several people noticed that it was an entire panel of women which is something several people said to me throughout the day. It was certainly a nice change to see so many women on stage and in the audience and I commend The Bold Italic for bringing together a healthy mix. It made for a better conference.
While many topics were covered, my notes were on the various tips and tricks the researchers used when in the field.
Stephanie spoke about her time at The New York Times when they used Food (farmer’s market grazer or fast food?) or Social Status (arm candy or committed?) as metaphors useful for grouping personas. These methods abstracted the descriptions a level so that they did not fall into a particular demographic group which is limiting when, particularly when looking at reading habits. Different age groups would sometimes share behaviors.
Bethany had an interesting point that when navigating online content there is no sense of how much you are missing. With a physical object such as a book or a newspaper you have visual cues that tell you if you’ve skipped a section but in the online world of the endless scroll, there is no “end.”
At one point there was as discussion of “trusted sources” and someone mentioned that its useful to think of such a source as a pathway to more quality content. I share this viewpoint in that links on a site should be treated as a curated collection and cannot always be trusted to third party widgets driven by an algorithm.
Someone in the audience asked how to collect user research without a dedicated user research team. Each panel member had their own tricks which included:
Bring in two people and observe the first person describe their experience to their partner. These secondary observations can uncover non-obvious aspects of your product that are suppressed in one-on-one interactions.
Camp out at a coffee shop, make friends with the barrista. Tell them that you will offer to buy coffee for anyone who will spend time with you on user research.
Repeat the last word someone says to you with a question mark as a way to continue the dialog. When someone states that, “I then copy/paste and send an email,” you then repeat, “Email?” to uncover motivations.
The final talk of the day was a discussion between Mat Honan and Clara Jeffery about Mat’s upcoming piece for Wired on the Future of Media.
Joel Johnson from Gawker was originally supposed to appear but recent news kept him from keeping his date so Clara stepped in to take his place.
Mat had news of his own to share and announced that he was taking over as Buzzfeed’s Silicon Valley bureau chief and that they would be building up their editorial team here.
Both Mat and Clara had interesting things to say about the readership on their perspective sites.
Wired’s readers are still primarily desktop. There was an audible gasp in the audience. While most tech news web sites have crossed over and have more mobile readers, the grand-daddy tech site of them all still had more desktop readers than mobile. Not only that, if I heard correctly, he also said that many of them still come in via the front page! Old habits die hard I guess.
Riffing a little on why he found Buzzfeed attractive, Mat said it was because they had figured out social better than any other publisher and were thus well-positioned for the future. This lead Clara to say,
A question back from Mat pondered a future where stories live as sharable units on their own, within social media feeds, independent of their site. Some good food for thought in that nugget there.
While Mat views traditional, attention-stealing advertising as “threatening” his views of native advertising are more nuanced. I believe he sees the convergence of editorial and revenue as a trend to get ahead of and he views Buzzfeed as ahead of the game here. I look forward to reading his Wired piece in January. He assured the audience that he only started seriously talking about moving from Wired to Buzzfeed after the story was filed.
Clara shared that Mother Jones burst back onto the scene with it’s blockbuster scoop of Mitt Romney’s 47% video clip. Thankfully they had just completed an overhaul of their infrastructure so their site stayed up despite the deluge of new traffic but the interesting thing is that following that spike many of the new readers stuck around and they are still enjoying more than double the traffic when compared to before the Mitt Romney story. She did not get around to revealing how those new readers were converted to return visitors.
If you’ve read this far I applaud your stamina! These notes are my way of thinking out loud and crystallizing my learnings in a way that I can refer to them in the future. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below.
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